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Rebuilding Iraq

President undeterred by antiwar protests

By Anne E. Kornblut, Globe Staff, 2/19/2003

WASHINGTON -- President Bush yesterday brushed aside massive demonstrations against his Iraq policy as evidence that protesters ''don't view Saddam Hussein as a risk to peace,'' and he promised to defend US interests despite the millions who took to the streets worldwide over the weekend.

Bush insisted he respects the rights of protesters to speak out, but he dismissed the largest antiwar demonstrations since the Vietnam era, with 6 million participants, as unrepresentative of world opinion.

''You know, size of protest, it's like deciding, well, I'm going to decide policy based upon a focus group. The role of a leader is to decide policy based upon the security -- in this case, the security of the people,'' Bush said. ''Evidently some . . . don't view Saddam Hussein as a risk to peace. I respectfully disagree.''

Bush, responding to reporters' questions after the swearing-in of Securities and Exchange Commission head William Donaldson at the White House, indicated he did not feel threatened by the dissent. ''Democracy is a beautiful thing,'' he said. ''I welcome people's right to say what they believe.''

In the past, Bush aides have been reluctant to publicly acknowledge the impact of demonstrators for any cause, not wanting to lend them legitimacy. But White House officials returned to work after the holiday weekend prepared to respond to the demonstrations, a reflection that the White House is continuing to monitor public opinion about a potential war. The White House does have pollsters, but Bush aides have repeatedly denied making decisions based on opinion surveys or focus groups.

At his morning briefing with reporters, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer brought along newspaper clippings from the 1980s, when Europeans protested deployment of intermediate-range missiles by NATO, weapons systems, Fleischer said, that ultimately helped bring an end to the Cold War.

In 1983, he said, ''The United States stood on principle; the American president did what he thought was right to preserve the peace.''

''As a result, the Berlin Wall came down, and the message of the protesters -- `Better neutral than dead' -- turned out to be a false message,'' Fleischer said. ''The point I'm making is that mass street protests don't always lead to the results that people think. The fear, the militarism, the fear that is expressed by the protesters doesn't always take place. Often the message of the protesters is contradicted by history.''

The Bush administration appeared determined to press for military action against Iraq, regardless of the street protests and objections of nations that have veto power on the UN Security Council.

White House officials are moving forward with the drafting of a new UN resolution to authorize use of force against Hussein and his regime if he does not completely disarm. Fleischer said US officials are seeking a ''relatively simple and straightforward resolution.'' It could be presented to the Security Council this week.

Another Iraq-related dispute persisted, as Turkish and US officials remained at odds over the size of an American aid package that would accompany US military use of Turkish bases in the event of a war against Baghdad.

Turkey has called for more than the $6 billion in grants and $20 billion in loan guarantees that the White House is offering. Administration officials said yesterday that Turkey must make a final decision about how fully it will cooperate, but they also confirmed that negotiations are ongoing.

Separately, Canadian officials said they would not participate in a war against Iraq unless it is approved by the UN Security Council, further limiting the number of nations that would be included in a ''coalition of the willing'' that administration officials have assembled. ''We have not been asked, and we do not intend to participate in a group of the willing,'' Prime Minister Jean Chretien told Canada's Parliament in Ottawa.

In the face of the protests, Bush noted that he has important allies on his side, including Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and President Jose Maria Aznar of Spain. Aznar is scheduled to meet with Bush at the president's ranch in Texas this weekend.

Bush praised Blair for supporting the tough approach to Iraq, despite stiff opposition to a war in Britain that could pose political risks for Blair down the road.

''Tony Blair understands that Saddam Hussein is a risk. Tony Blair sees that, you know, a weakened United Nations is not good for world peace,'' Bush said, responding to reporters' questions after the swearing-in of Donaldson at the White House. Blair, Bush said, ''is a courageous leader, and I'm proud to call him friend.''

Bush, who has abhorred protesters since his days as Texas governor, sometimes took an altered travel route during the 2000 presidential campaign to avoid demonstrators who occasionally appeared on the trail.

A dislike of protesters has a long tradition among presidents: Lyndon Johnson deeply resented the Vietnam War protesters who stood outside the White House gates chanting, ''Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?''

Johnson eventually declined to seek reelection in 1968, in part because of the massive protests -- a lesson that Bush should not ignore, even if he decides not to take the demonstrators' views into account, according to Johnson biographer Robert Dallek.

''Johnson found it destroyed his presidency because the divisions over Vietnam were massive,'' Dallek said. ''I don't think you can dismiss these demonstrations you had in New York and San Francisco and Chicago over the weekend as something to be taken lightly, because, after all, we haven't even gone to war yet.''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 2/19/2003.
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